For some of us the future is already here.
I live in a mixed rental and retail building on a transit corridor. I'm one of the activists who went on rent strike for five years to buy and rehabilitate a dangerously run-down building into the well-maintained cooperative it is today.
My fellow tenants and I take great interest in city planning, and participated whole-heartedly in the University Avenue Strategic Plan workshops put on by Calthorpe Associates, though we noted that Calthorpe met with developers privately before the public could participate.
We obediently drew parks, resurfaced streams, and pedestrian-serving businesses on our maps. We voiced the need for crosswalks, bike lanes, and rental housing. We exhausted ourselves going to meetings. The upshot? The developers' wish list was fulfilled, and we came up empty.
Proud though I am of the role my fellow tenants and I played in securing control of our housing, we're also in a prime position to point out what's currently missing from the eco-cities dream-scape currently being promoted by local developers and the burden it creates for people like ourselves. Density works if and only if certain conditions are in place:
1. convenient, inexpensive transit
All density promoters are invited to stand at the corner of University and San Pablo and gaze at the traffic backed-up for miles in all directions, the exhaust from which is our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bus and bike riders are just as stuck as the CEOs in BMWs. More density? We're not ready.
2. neighborhood-serving businesses
Density planners are invited to read the reams of documented neighborhood opposition to the Blockbuster Video which planners and council representatives allowed to take the place of the neighborhood's hoped-for area-serving businesses. Economics outweighs common sense in current city planning, and has helped unbalance a fragile neighborhood. People continue to travel to other neighborhoods for goods and services, because a video is no substitute for stationary or shoes.
3. neighborhood-serving open space
The saddest aspect of the eco-city dream-scape is the ready availability of gardens and streams on paper which never manifest or are hidden on private property. No rooftop garden can take the place of landscaping in front of and around a building, and such landscaping is hardly a substitute for the public parks and playgrounds people need.
4. pedestrian-friendly atmosphere
Come on to my house. Especially on the day when the rendering truck docks near the butcher shop, the smoke-stack idling maybe eight feet from the second-story windows of our apartment building. Try to simply cross the street, or find a place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, keeping in mind that pedestrians, stroller-pushers and bike-riders were better represented at the Calthorpe workshops than the drivers from the hills.
5. laws to address collision of interests between retail and residential
Suffice it to say that residential dwellers disturbed by trash-can bangers and leaf-blowers have yet to experience the industrial and commercial versions of same, or the futility of trying to get violators cited and stopped.
When high-rise hype comes to town, my advise is simple. In any workshop or planning session which might be used to influence an area plan or Berkeley's general plan, insist that high-rises and dense developments come afterthe manifestation of the transit, the public (not private) open space, the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, and neighborhood-serving businesses. Don't allow city planners to just move their pencils when you speak, or those ideas will be moldering on a planner's shelf when you realize your garden will no longer get enough sun to manage a single tomato. Without the balance of transit options and open space, Berkeley will become New York while trying to avoid becoming Los Angeles.
Carol Denney is a community activist, and is a former boardmember of the Crossroads Village Mutual Housing Association.